“I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if anyone calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick . . . Wouldn’t a whole lovely summer, quite alone, be delightful?’
This delightful companion to the famous Elizabeth and her German Garden is a witty, lyrical account of a rejuvenating, solitary summer filled with books and Elizabeth’s reflections on her beloved garden. Descriptions of magnificent larkspurs and burning nasturtiums give way to those of cooling forest walks. Yet the months aren’t as solitary as she’d planned: there’s still her husband to pacify and the April, May and June babies to amuse.”
It’s rare for me to read the introduction to classics. However, occasionally after enjoying a book I find it refreshing to return to preliminary notes and reflections. This was the case with my reading of The Solitary Summer
by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I’ve just finished.
Learning about the author has added so much to my reading experience. I could relate to the book in many ways before, but now I realise that Elizabeth von Arnim and myself are even more alike. We are both avid readers, for instance. Well, she was. My favourite part of The Solitary Summer
must have been the elegy to her favourite authors in the May 15 entry.
Arnim begins with a mention of Thoreau, which appealed to me. I’ve recently struggled reading Walden, despite enjoying the beginning and its premise so much. However, Arnim explains the reason behind my difficulties with remarkable precision: “[Thoreau] is a person who loves the open air, and will refuse to give you much pleasure if you try to read him amid the pomp and circumstance of upholstery; but out in the sun, and especially by this pond, he is delightful.” This beautifully written explanation makes so much sense.
I find Arnim ideally suited to spring, but The Solitary Summer is perfect to read here in Italy. Not to make you jealous, but the sun is beaming down, the Bay of Naples is on the horizon, and nature is flourishing with yellows and purples. The terrace on which I am sitting isn’t far from utopian.
It may seem slightly selfish to read a book about a solitary summer whilst on holiday with my boyfriend, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Being here with him is a nice escape from the world, and it’s solitary enough for me at the moment. In Arnim’s novel, Elizabeth isn’t entirely alone either: she sees her husband morning and evening, and a regiment is billeted to their home (which according to the introduction is a hefty estate – the narrator, like the author, is rather modest).
I wasn’t won over by the protagonist’s encounters with the lieutenant towards the novel’s end; it seemed to me cluttered and out of place, although it does serve to show her distaste upon her peace being disturbed. The ending, nonetheless, was beautiful, proving that she does love her “Man of Wrath” dearly, and isn’t happy with a life of complete social isolation. Introverts, like Elizabeth and myself, need copious solitary hours, but also social contact in between to our taste.
The Solitary Summer
provides an escape into nature, away from frantic ordinary life and into inner reflection. The novel regards slowing down into the present and simplicity as highly as, if not more than, solitude, and it is a truly wonderful text to read.